Auckland water crisis: Application for 200m litres of Waikato River water referred to a Board of Inquiry

Drought-stricken Auckland's application for an extra 200 million litres of water per day from the Waikato River has been referred to a Board of Inquiry, Environment Minister David Parker announced on Tuesday.

The application to the Waikato Regional Council - which was filed seven years ago - has been "called in" under Part 6AA of the Resource Management Act 1991 (RMA), Parker confirmed.

Although Auckland continues to battle a major water shortage, critics have claimed the lack of rainfall has simply exposed incompetence and a lack of forward-planning by the council and Watercare Services Limited, the organisation that manages Auckland's municipal water.

"The future sources of drinking water for Auckland are a matter of national significance. The application obviously affects Auckland, but also other activities in the Waikato and the river itself," Parker said in a statement.

"The Inquiry will need to consider the viability of alternatives, including the treatment of storm and/or wastewater. Water taken for Auckland from the Waikato already includes treated water from outfalls from stormwater and treated wastewater upstream of its take.

"I have asked the Waikato River Authority to name an appointee to the Board of Inquiry, which it is entitled to do under section 29(5) of the Waikato-Tainui Raupatu Claims (Waikato River) Settlement Act 2010."

The Board of Inquiry will comprise three people and will be led by a current or retired Environment Court judge.

The Government, Waikato Regional Council and Hamilton City Council have been working with Auckland and other interested parties over several months to help resolve Auckland’s water issues, Parker noted.

Watercare lodged the application with the Waikato Regional Council back in 2013, under the expectation that Auckland would need the additional water from roughly 2030 - but it has yet to be processed, with 105 resource consent requests ahead in the queue. 

This city's once-in-a-generation drought has caused low inflows into Auckland’s reservoirs, which had dropped to 45 percent capacity earlier this year. Although recent rain has increased storage levels to 55 percent, there are ongoing concerns that next summer could result in a water crisis if low rainfall continues.

In the meantime, Parker's statement confirmed that an additional 25 million litres a day (MLD) of winter water has been approved for use by Watercare. A temporary transfer of 25 MLD of summer water from an existing consent holder - that is not currently using that allocation - is also being negotiated.

In August, Watercare is due to complete the required upgrade to their facilities to utilise the 25 MLD. The organisation is already utilising an additional 10 MLD through their existing infrastructure.

A separate application has also been filed for 100 MLD of winter water, the statement confirmed, which is being considered by the Waikato Regional Council. This application has not been called in by Parker at this stage.

If this application is granted, the called-in application for 200 MLD is expected to be modified.

Last week, Waikato Regional Council chairman Russ Rimmington advised Watercare to "get a grip" in a fiery on-air rant, following Auckland Mayor Phil Goff's plea to Parliament to fast-track the application.

Goff has urged the Government to add the city's water crisis to the list of 11 urgent projects set to receive Government funding as part of the COVID-19 recovery plan.